Wednesday, February 23, 2005

The Scourge known as Spyware

For those of you who don't know this, I'm a network administrator for a software company, and I deal with a little of everything, from building PCs to making sure the wide-area network (WAN) functions properly. As a consequence of my job, I deal with -- and am asked about -- spyware on an almost daily basis. Most of us, myself included, have had spyware, or knows someone who has. Everyone agrees that spyware (and it's cousin, adware) is a bad thing.

Since I'm a network admin, it should come as no surprise that I agree that spyware sucks! Spyware takes system and network resources, frustrates users, reduces productivity in a business environment, and detracts from the pleasure of using a PC at home. This doesn't even take into account the problems with fraud that spyware can cause. At the same time though, I have a grudging respect for these spyware writers, because they're good at what they do. Even if I remove a piece of spyware, a lot of times it's got a "keep-alive" program running in the background that checks for the presence of the spyware, and automatically reinstalls the spyware if the keep-alive doesn't detect the spyware. If some of the big vendors could implement this type of health checking (are you paying attention, Microsoft??), the industry would make a huge advancement. I've also got to concede that spyware gives me a little job security.

But that's neither here nor there. Here's what you really want to know... "How do I prevent spyware from getting onto my PC?" I know that most users aren't gonna follow my advice, but here's my two cents...

-Don't download free stuff without reading the license agreement.

-When you visit a web site that says "You need to download so-and-so in order to view the page properly," say NO and see if the page loads. If it doesn't load properly, try again. If it does load properly, you probably just escaped getting a piece of spyware.

-You've heard it time and time again... Don't open attachments in your email, unless you trust the sender. Even then, beware. Even the experts are fooled occasionally.

-Don't click on ANYTHING from a spammer. This includes the "Remove me from this mailing list." While some spammers are really trying to do the right thing with this tag line, most people are using this to verify that you've got a legitimate email address (and they'll pass your email address off to more spammers making things worse), and some of these unsubscribe links are links to spyware.

-Get some anti-spyware software. Most of the free stuff is perfectly acceptable. (Again though, read the license agreement before you install the product.)

-Get a personal firewall.

-Consider using an alternate web browser, such as Firefox. This isn't designed as a slam on Microsoft. The fact is though, that Microsoft's Internet Explorer dominates the web browser market. Since spyware writers want the biggest bang for the buck, they're going to target the web browser with the greatest market share -- Microsoft's Internet Explorer. By using an alternate web browser, you are making yourself safer from most spyware exploits, because the spyware writers aren't targeting the web browser you're using.

Here endeth the lesson.

Friday, February 18, 2005

...On Social Security

There’s been a lot of debate about President Bush’s plan to overhaul Social Security. While I’m still skeptical of his plan to “privatize” the massive retirement fund, I also have to give him kudos for at least trying to do something. From the time I got my first job as a child, I’ve paid into social security, and for my entire adult life I’ve been aware that the program couldn’t last indefinitely with the current structure. For as long as I can remember, politicians have made various proposals to change the current system. Invariably, senior citizens – arguably the most politically active demographic – become worried that changes to the status quo will disrupt their benefits, browbeat their representatives into submission, and the proposals die before they’re even thoroughly discussed. As a result, Social Security continues headlong toward catastrophe.

It is essentially undisputed that Social Security will become bankrupt if something doesn’t change. When the baby boomers start retiring, money will be taken out of the Social Security fund faster than it’s going in. Yet any time someone tries to actually do something about the upcoming problem, current recipients and those due to start drawing benefits in the near future cry foul. I hate to tell you folks, but you can’t have it both ways. I understand that many retired people rely on their Social Security income to make ends meet. I realize that the Government made you a promise that if you put money into the plan while you were working that you’d be taken care of after retirement. But when the plan was created in the 1930’s, life expectancy was far shorter than it is today. The baby boom hadn’t happened, and neither had the subsequent decline in birth rates. In short, the Government hadn’t planned on the shortfall of contributions that we’ve been experiencing for the last several decades. Everyone knows that you can’t always keep every promise you ever make. Circumstances sometimes change, unforeseen events arise, and sometimes these unexpected variations require a change in plans.

Many of us who are still decades away from retirement have come to realize that things can’t continue as they are today. In fact, many of us believe that social security will not even exist by the time we reach the age of retirement. Despite this uncertainty, we are still asked – and still do – contribute, in order to help the Government fulfill the promise made to our parents and grandparents. We do this knowing full well that Social Security may not exist by the time we retire. It definitely won’t be structured like it is now.

Almost without exception, current retirees collect far more in benefits than they paid into the fund while they were working. But the fact is, Washington considers Social Security a sacred cow, something that can’t be changed. Why? Because of the powerful lobbying on the part of seniors. While the public at large seems to detest special interest groups and powerful lobbyists, things are somehow different when it comes to their monthly stipend. Not only do seniors condone lobbying for Social Security, they actively support it.

The time has come for change. Currently, Social Security is the Titanic heading for that giant iceberg. The major difference between Social Security and the famous cruise liner is that most of us see the impending doom of Social Security insolvency and would like to do something about before it’s too late to change course. The problem is that most current recipients are unwilling to change course now in order to avoid a future catastrophe. They’d rather stick their heads in the sand and pretend that things are peachy. Well, they’re not!

My parents’ and grandparents’ generations have talked for years about the sacrifices they’ve made to make America a better place for future generations. I recognize, understand and applaud the sacrifices of those who have come before with the intention of making things better for me, and for and my children. What they’re failing to understand though, is that the sacrifice doesn’t magically end when you retire. As a parent, I realize that I’ve made a lifelong commitment to making things better for my children.

While I’m not convinced that President Bush’s current proposal is the magic elixir that will somehow fix Social Security, I wholeheartedly applaud his efforts, and support him in his quest to at least try something… anything. I don’t know if his proposal will work, but I do know that the status quo doesn’t work. And in the end, I think it’s this fear of the unknown that’s got seniors so paralyzed and opposed to any recommended change. But which is worse – a known catastrophe, or the unknown?

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Politics as Usual

With this election, we finally saw the "fulfillment" of the long-standing promise that the Internet would revolutionize the world of politics. There’s already been enough press about how Howard Dean raked in the political contributions from supporters via the Internet, so I won’t rehash that. There’s been even more buzz about the blogging community’s contribution to the election, so I don’t feel the need to revisit that either. What I would like to do though, is discuss how the media and political bloggers still don’t get it. Though people seem to think that the Internet is revolutionizing American politics, it’s really not. In fact, I’d argue that it’s more of the same old crap, just migrated to a different media.

When Howard Dean brought up his web site and successfully gathered all of that money and all of those signatures during his campaign, I will concede that he caught the political world off guard. Never before had a political candidate successfully accomplished so much, using the Internet as a medium. But somewhere along the line, politics as usual kicked in. Dean had his notorious red-faced, vein-in-the-middle-of-the-head-bulging, temper-tantrum-looking, conniption fit, and the rest of the Democrats said “Woah, we don’t want this guy around.” So I suspect that backroom favors were called in, the old Democratic establishment mobilized themselves, and suddenly Dean was a pariah. I’m not calling this into judgment. I’m not saying whether or not this should have happened. I’m merely pointing out that after this alleged “revolution,” politics as usual was the order of the day. It’s tough to call it a revolution if the status quo prevails.

Around the same time, bloggers started garnering a lot of media buzz. In my opinion, a couple of things happened. People got tired of the mainstream media spoon-feeding them the news – complete with opinion, and like-minded people used the Internet to flock together. Not since the days of Walter Cronkite has the media truly “reported” the news. For almost as long as I can remember, the media has gone after flash and sensationalism, instead of strictly reporting the news and allowing us to make up our own minds. (This, in my opinion, is the logical result of broadcasting the news for ratings, instead of broadcasting the news in an attempt to inform, but that’s a completely separate topic.)

And since the public couldn’t get their wish of truly “reporting” the news fulfilled by mainstream media, they took to the Internet in droves, partially in a quest for real answers, and partially to find others who thought and believed the same as they did. This brought blogging into the mainstream. Unfortunately, people fail to see that this was still more of the same. If you notice, the sites that really took off either deified or vilified Bush or Kerry. The majority, who in my opinion thought both of these alleged candidates were (and still are) ass-clowns, was still completely ignored. Those who haven’t bought into the party line are still marginalized. Yes, I acknowledge that there are a plethora of blogs out there made by mainstream, disenfranchised Americans. Unfortunately they don’t get even close to the number of hits of the blogs that toe the party line. So once again the status quo prevails, and the “revolution” is a mirage.

The Internet has come closer to truly bringing about a real revolution in politics than anything I’ve experienced in my life – as great as radio and as great as television could have been if things had played out a little differently. The Internet can still become the great equalizer, making the little guy’s voice as loud and coherent as the voice of the Democratic and Republican political machine. But in order for this to happen, the little guy is going to have to do a little bit of extra work and search for the truth, instead of accepting the top posts on their search engines. After all, the political establishment has purchased the top search engine returns. In the end, I doubt that the Internet will bring about a revolution. Money seems to speak louder than critical thinking. But I’d still like to hope…

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Mama, Mama, Can’t You See…

...what the Marine Corps has done for me?

I was in the Marine Corps for six years, and I've been out for twelve. Despite the fact that I've been out of the Corps for twice as long as I was in, I am still living proof of the Marine Corps adage "Once a Marine, always a Marine." The Marine Corps is one of the greatest parts of who I am; the only thing that makes me more proud is fatherhood.

Most of what the Marine Corps instilled into me is intangible. It gave me discipline, perseverance, patriotism, maturity, judgment, decisiveness, integrity, dependability, initiative, loyalty... the list goes on and on. I've long believed – and have often said -- that if I hadn't joined the Marine Corps, I'd probably be dead or in jail.

Only another Marine truly understands the depth of these words. Friends you make in the Corps are friends for life, and being a Marine is truly being part of a brotherhood. I talk to some of my buddies quite a bit... some I haven't spoken to in over a decade. But they are all an indelible part of my past, and who I am today.

I've run into many current and former Marines since my enlistment ended, and it never fails... we have a bond that's as strong as the bond I have with my family (albeit in a completely different way). Every Marine, past, present and future, shares camaraderie, an Esprit de Corps that will never die.

Though I am no longer serving my beloved Corps, I am still -- and will continue to be -- proud to be a Marine.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Big Brother is Here

He’s a little later than expected, and he’s not exactly the way that George Orwell envisioned in his famous novel, 1984, but make no mistake, Big Brother has arrived. Now before you write me off as a conspiracy theorist, or a head case, you should understand that I’m not saying that this is all bad. I’m not going to get into whether or not any of these Big Brother-esque developments are for the good of society at large or not. But I will point out how big brother has been in my life today – and it’s not even 8:30 in the morning. I am, however, going to say that Big Brother is NOT just the government. It’s a combination of government and big business that seek to know about every little thing we do.

When I got up this morning, I checked the weather on my computer. I’ve got the site on my favorites, and the site is configured to know my local weather by zip code. I could conceivably personalize the page even more, so that when the page loads it greets me by name, tells me whether or not to play golf, go camping or whatever other activity I would choose where weather is a factor. Why? Because they want my business. They want me to visit that page often and click on their spiffy little advertisements, which make them money. That’s why they want to know as much about me as possible.

On the way to work, I passed through a traffic intersection with cameras. Ostensibly, the cameras are mounted for “safety.” When people know there’s a camera tracking their movement, they’ll be less likely to speed, run red lights, and so forth. Heck, the cops can even take a picture of a car running through a red light and mail the ticket to the vehicle owner. It’s not an issue of safety. It’s an issue of more money for the city. I guarantee** you that one of the first questions asked by the city when they considered these cameras was “How long until these cameras are paid for?” And I can guarantee** you that the answer out of the sales dude’s mouth was “They’ll pay for themselves in revenue from traffic tickets and lowered risk of lawsuit. Hell, if you buy now, I’ll even throw in a free set of Ginsu knives – a $49.99 value – absolutely free!”

And when I got to work today, I had to swipe my little magnetic badge against a card reader, so that I could get into the building. When it was installed, we were told that it was for our safety. Without it, someone could get into the building and go postal on us. Of course, with it, our company can now track exactly when we enter the building, and how many times we enter and leave throughout the course of the day. Other companies can track exactly where you are in the building at any given point throughout the day. Spending too much time on the toilet? Big brother will know.

Again, I’m not a conspiracy theorist. Maybe a little crazy, but I’m no head case. I realize that there are pros and cons to every one of these developments I mentioned. With the web site, I get more personalized service. With the traffic light, the intersection is a little safer. Monitoring employee activity (to some extent) increases productivity. So these things in and of themselves are not nefarious in nature. They’re just a couple of examples of how our privacy is quickly being whittled away by the advancement of technology. Is it a good thing? I’m not sure. Is it a bad thing? We’ll just have to wait and see. One thing’s for sure though, it not something that will change anytime soon.

(**NOT a real guarantee!)

Wednesday, February 2, 2005

The Lord works in mysterious ways...

It was the early 1990's, and I was waiting for my Marine Corps enlistment to end. I had planned on returning to my home state, moving in with a friend from high school, and pursuing a college degree in Electrical Engineering at the University. Those plans all changed when the woman I was dating got pregnant. We didn't plan on getting married for the sake of the kid, but after reviewing our options, we ended up marrying anyway. On the same day I was honorably discharged from the Marine Corps, my first daughter was born.

Since I was discharged and my wife was still working, I became a house husband, and took part-time jobs at night. Being a house husband was one of the best jobs I ever had. The pay sucked, but it was easy and rewarding; and I reveled in watching my infant daughter grow.

My wife, also a Marine, was scheduled to be discharged in August of the next year. We were stationed in Orange County, CA, but we both decided that it would best for our daughter to leave Souther California. So we came back to my home town. The wife didn't like small-town life, and we soon moved to a larger city -- rather, what passes for a city in this area.

That move nearly split us up, but fate intervened again, as she became pregnant with our second child. We were both going to school and working at the time. Things were hard, but every night when I got home, my girls would smile and want to play with me, and things were instantly better.

After a while, we finished school and bought a house. The family was officially part of the American Dream, and part of the rat race. Not too long after that, my wife decided she didn't want to stay married anymore.

As you can imagine, I was crushed, but nowhere nearly as devastated as my girls were. Everything they had known, their entire world, was being rocked to its foundation. The knowledge that I had to be strong for them was what kept me together. I don't remember much about that period of my life, except for remembering how bad I felt; I never want to feel that way again.

But children are resilient. They adjusted to our new life, which allowed me to move on as well. Things are back to normal. We laugh, play, joke and fight like any family does.

Kids... they're cute, smart, argumentative, imaginative, stubborn, playful, lazy... They bring a world of confusion, happiness, innocence, wisdom... They're the most frustratingly fun experience that God can give. When He said "Be fruitful and multiply," God was giving us a blessing. On those trying days, I don't know how much of his "blessing" I can handle, but on the fun days, I realize that it's one of His greatest gifts.

Tuesday, February 1, 2005

She Said Yes

Almost exactly a year after meeting my girlfriend, I asked her to marry me. Our mutual friend was hosting another wine tasting party, and there was no better time or place to ask her, than at the same event one year later.

I presented the ring by attaching it to a wine glass charm when she put her wine glass down to get some food. When she came back, the ring was on her wine glass.